Karen La Rosa: an interview about Sicily

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Sicily exudes a special kind of magic which inspires people to fall in love with it. A subtle kind of intoxication which overwhelms its visitors, through its sunshine, its food, history, the people, its timeless quality and pace of life, often visitors become hopelessly enamored of this island.

With those of Sicilian heritage the connection is always more intense, there is something visceral which pulls you back and makes you fit comfortably into the arms of your own personal genetic history.

Over the years I have met many people who have made valuable connections to Sicily and one of the most passionate stories has to be that of Karen La Rosa who has turned her love for Sicily into her work.

She writes on her web page La RosaWorks about how she once took a bike riding tour of Sicily and how:

At one point, riding alone and completely surrounded by olives, I dismounted and sank my hands deep into the warm earth. It was rocky but soft, and tenderly cared for. It was an incredible moment and I began to have a real sense of place. In that pile of earth was Sicilian history, generations of olive growing, labor and obstacles. Rich indeed.

Later Karen started her own unique travel company which is dedicated to sharing Sicily and Sicilian culture with the world.

I was happy to hear from Karen La Rosa who happily answered my questions about her experiences and work in Sicily.

Randazzo
Randazzo

Tell us about La Rosa Works, how did it come about, what kind of events do you organise and what’s your philosophy about Sicily.

Sicily is in my blood and it has fascinated me since I was little. I asked so many questions about my heritage as a child, and learned a lot, from conversation to what was on the table. It was on my first trip to Sicily that I recognized myself as belonging to that place. I felt a close bond, and each time I am there, that bond is reinforced, it grows deeper.

When our three boys were at the end of their school years, I decided to start a business to share what I love. The island is so under-visited by Americans that I thought I should do what I could to encourage visiting and experiencing the magic. It’s not the same place it was one hundred years ago! I organize tours for small and large groups. Some I accompany, others go on their own following my arrangements. I’ve done theme tours as well for artists and yoga lovers, for example, foodies and wine lovers, historians and music groups. It’s all fun and gratifying.

I like to be involved in events because it is a fun way to reach many people who may not have yet made the commitment to travel to Sicily.  I have organized and collaborated on Sicilian themed dinners and wine tastings, on a large exhibit that incorporated many of the cultural aspects of Sicily, even exhibited some of my Sicily photos. I have created installations and displays.

Presently, I am involved in a major art initiative called Due South, involving more than 30 artists from Sicily and the US, including most recently, Letizia Battaglia, the famous Mafia photojournalist.  You can read about the project on my website, here.

I am the Sicily consultant, working on press, sponsorship and tours for museum supporters and art collectors. Over the course of the 3-month Delaware Contemporary museum exhibit, which will show the result of 3 years of artists’ work focused on Sicily, we will also offer events that spotlight many aspects of Sicily life and history. I’m excited and honored to be a part of this.

Duomo Taormina
Taormina

Why should someone come to visit Sicily on their vacation?

The reasons to come visit are many. The island has something for everyone. It is a wonderful place to unplug and relax by the sea, or play golf, or hike. But if food and wine is your passion, you can find fabulous food, in Michelin starred restaurants, or at small home style trattorie, chefs and cooking classes, too, and you can visit some of Italy’s best wineries, each one of which is unique. The historical canvas is so wide in Sicily, and each of the people’s who visited Sicily over the centuries left their mark, certainly in the food. At every turn, their richness greets you – Greek ruins, Roman mosaics, Byzantine mosaics, Arab ceramics and inlaid, woodwork ceilings, Norman architecture, and Spanish palazzi. The destructive forces of Mount Etna, were the catalyst for building some truly fanciful and ornate Baroque structures. This is just a little nod to what is there. It is truly spectacular to see Sicily up close! Its history surrounds you in the most wonderfully overwhelming way.

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Image c/o Karen La Rosa

What is the best thing to do in each season? Could you break it down for us, what should we be doing in a visit in the summer/fall/winter and spring?

Another tough question! It is tough because there are many things to talk about. Sicily is a semi-arid climate but within that there are many microclimates. Harvest begins in late summer in certain places, and continues all the way into November on Mount Etna!  Since so much of Sicily is still agricultural, that means a lot of hustle, bustle and fun. The freshness and intense flavors found in the markets all year round is special and at times, there are harvest festivals all over the island. They celebrate crops such as chestnuts or artichokes, prickly pear or grapes. They are always great community events.

Then come the Christmas holidays, full of food and celebration. If you go in winter, you may not need a jacket in the cities, but go into the hill towns and the wind will make you shiver. Church bells ring everywhere.

In February and March, the greening once again begins, and the earth is covered in a blanket of yellow flowers with the gentle pink and white almond blossoms dotting the landscape. Oranges and lemons are everywhere. Agrigento hosts the Almond Blossom festival, a big cultural celebration with music and dancing.

The biggest winter event is in Catania, in the first week of February, when the Feast of Sant’Agata commands everyone’s heart. It is a 3-day event that is unparalleled in its spectacle. Religious and traditional, it is an opportunity of a lifetime to witness. 

In the north, Acireale hosts one of Italy’s best Carnevale celebrations, and it continues for a month of costumes and children, music and fun.

In some years, these three events coincide and what an exceptional opportunity is that!

I think spring is the most visually exceptional, with flowers in every color imaginable and in their most intense version, visible everywhere.  Sicilians are people who love to let the wild grow and cultivate the rest. Natural beauty abounds.

Summer can be warm in Sicily, but there are many hills where the breezes blow cooler air and the sea bathes you in the deepest azure blue waters. Sicily boasts more than 300 days a year of sunshine. I think the sky and the sea are rivals for their blueness.

And then, by the end of the summer, we begin again the harvest. Grapes drip from vines everywhere. The air is redolent of wine. Olives are big and juicy, leaving your hands with a subtle smell and oily film. There is nothing quite like participating in these harvests.

That’s a long way of saying that I love all the seasons in Sicily, but Spring and Fall especially.

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Dancing Satyr, Mazara del Vallo. C/o Karen La Rosa

What is your own personal favorite site to visit?

I honestly cannot say that I have one. I love the streets of Palermo and Catania, too, where I feel so at home! I have had a couple of Stendhal moments, visiting both the Charioteer statue on Mozia and the Dancing Satyr in Mazara del Vallo. Both experiences left me speechless. They are jaw dropping works of art, so advanced for their time. I am ever amazed that Sicily is not as well visited as the other areas of Italy.

Sicilian Prickly Pears

What is your favorite taste of Sicily?

Wine and olive oil. Eggplant. Blood oranges. Pistachios. Almonds. Fennel. Ricotta….I could go on.

The deep blue sea near Capo d'orlando

What is your favorite off the beaten track destination or experience?

For me, eating freshly made and warm ricotta cheese is like a religious experience. It is simply heaven and wherever I am, I seek out the sheep farmer.

I also love visiting wineries and I have visited many. To me, a winery reflects nature, a philosophy, and a history. It is a testament to perseverance and hard work, to passion, and perhaps a little craziness. Each is unique except for one thing: they all work with grapes. I find that meeting the wine growers and makers is endlessly fascinating. They appreciate my enthusiasm and love to share. It’s a great day.

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Image c/o Karen La Rosa

Sicily is filled with works of art, if you can choose one emblematic piece of art from La Trincaria which would it be?

You’re going to laugh, but I really love the statue in the Piazza Duomo in Catania – the Fontana dell’Amenano. It has so much going on that represents Sicily. The boy is youth, strong, with a beautiful sculpted body. He bears a cornucopia, representing Sicily’s agricultural gifts. The two on their knees are older and carry the weight, pouring the rushing water into the river, the great river that once flowed through the city and was submerged by an eruption, the water representing to me the fast passage of time. The statue is big, graceful and proud, and yet it sits at the entrance to the fish market rather than in the center of a big piazza. Something about it says Sicily to me.

Antiques at Taormina

What is your personal connection to Sicily? Why have you decided to set up a business based on the island?

It is my heritage, and my passion. When my husband first went to Sicily, he said “I will never refer to you as Italian again.”

Markets at Noto, Syracuse

How would you describe Sicily in one sentence.

On my website I have a whole page dedicated to quotes I’ve collected about Sicily – words written by great writers, poets, historians and philosophers, from across the centuries. See the quotes page here

What could I say that they haven’t?

Sicily is in my heart, plain and simple. The island fills me with happiness and I try to give back.

Thanks so much to Karen La Rosa for taking the time to answer my questions.

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